In times of terrible tragedies—whether personal or world-wide—many in the West think of the Bible and pray. While the text of the prayer may be general–”Please fix this!”–there is usually the hope that there will be some dramatic, divine intervention—much like, say, God splitting the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus. However, while there are many examples of such miracles in both the Old and the New Testaments, there are also accounts where God’s presence is not at all obvious. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, the Joseph of “The Coat of Many Colors” fame is despised by his brothers, sold into slavery and spends years in an Egyptian dungeon—only to rise to power by the side of the Egyptian vizier, save the lands from a devastating drought and rescue his family. As Joseph tells his bewildered brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) Similarly, in the Book of Esther, when the evil Haman seems about to destroy the Jews of Persia, Mordechai tells Esther that “Perhaps God made you queen for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) God’s name is barely mentioned at all and the queen is understandably terrified that she will fail to persuade the king—and die trying. Nevertheless, the Jews are saved—without benefit of any lightening or earthquakes or walls tumbling down.
This latter, covert process is also present in the Eastern religious traditions. Whether it is the Tao of Taoism or karma in Hinduism, these maintain that there are universal moral laws in operation which will ensure the eventual success of the good and the failure of evil. In Buddhism, “compassion” is not the result of “self sacrifice,” but the natural result of the realization that the individual is part of an organic consciousness pervading the universe. Put another way, as the hand is not jealous of the foot when the foot is in pain and needs care and attention, so, too, the enlightened person intuits that the fate of one is the fate of all. As the poet John Donne writes, “Ask not for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee.”
If there is a difference between the East and West in this regard, it may have to do with the personal involvement of the Divine. In Christianity, for example, “God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) In that context, while Muslims reject the idea of God somehow taking human form, they do agree that Allah listens to prayers and is willing to actively intervene in history. In the East, while there are myriad spiritual entities who may intercede on behalf of human pleas, the approach seems to lack the divine intent of the West. The moral law of gravity does not personally change the course of history. However, the wise understand that there is such a moral law of gravity and behave accordingly if they wish to succeed.
In any event, whether through conscious intervention or impersonal moral law, the message in both the Western and Eastern religious traditions is the same: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.” (Proverbs 19:21) The good may not prevail as quickly as we might like and that victory may seem quite improbable at times. Nevertheless, if we really believe that “The Lord of all the earth will do justly,” (Genesis 18:25), then we can have faith that justice will ultimately be vindicated–however long it takes; however improbable it may seem.